Matt Kahn in Slate on overconsumption

How overconsumption might save the planet – How the World Works –

Matt’s argument is a pretty standard one from natural resource economics–the more scarce something becomes, the more price competition rations its use and the more likely that green alternatives become feasible in terms of cost. I think this will be true of the BEV market; I don’t think it proves true in markets where there are fewer clear property rights. For example, I doubt this logic will save the tiger or the gorilla.

Woo Woo Elinor Ostrom!

Elinor Ostrom has been awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics along with Oliver Williamson.

Dr. Ostrom is the first female recipient of the prize, and perhaps even more exciting, is an institutional scholar who studied the commons. She’s an absolute giant in the field of environmental governance. It’s an inspired choice, one that suggests the committee is beginning to recognize the importance of interdisciplinary work and ideas on economics.
Beyond that, she’s a super nice lady.

This has been the first time I have smiled in weeks! We’re all supposed to pretend we’re all equal now, or else all the guys around me will start citing Lifetime Network and how tough they have it, but the academic world is highly male-dominated even though our professions–civil engineering, urban planning–have changed. I have dozens of great male role models around me, and I appreciate them all. But I have only a handful of women. Maybe the scarcity shouldn’t make a difference, but it does. Research and writing are lonely endeavors, and I can’t even begin to describe how isolating and alienating the tenure process is. You need to be able to know that people like you can succeed in the game. At least I have always needed that.

So why is Ostrom’s work so important to cities? I’m glad you asked. Central to Ostrom’s work are exemplars where “commons” are governed successfully (and less so) among users. Garret Hardin, an influential ecologist who passed away in 2003, first brought the commons to our attention through a paper in Science, whereby he noted that rational individuals have an incentive to over-use the commons in the absence of clearly defined property rights [1]. Ostrom’s work studied the role of institutions and agreements in adjudicating the usage of the commons, so that destruction of common pool resources was not inevitable nor necessarily the purview of individual property rights alone, though I would argue many of the factors she highlighted in her work amount to the creation of jointly held property rights [2]. In other words, her work addresses the fundamental question of the city: that is, how do we get along together, how do we make decisions–good ones–about the shared goods (and environments) that affect large groups of people where property rights are perhaps fuzzy.

Marginal Revolution has a discussion up. The comments leave quite a bit to be desired as they smell of sour grapes, but as with men and Lifetime movies, it’s not often that I get to hear economists, the veritable jewels within the crown of the social sciences and usually all-too-confident in their entitlement to act as consultants to power, fret about whether their status is slipping. IT’S ONE PRIZE, PEOPLE, CHILLAX WOULD YA?

**My apologies to Oliver Williamson, but he’s a bit of a no-brainer here and I suspect his reputation can withstand being given short shrift in an obscure planner’s blog.

[1] Hardin, G. (1968). Tragedy of the Commons. Science, 162, 1243-1248.

[2] Ostrom, E. (1990). Governing the commons: The evolution of institutions for collective action. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

The economic value of whales

A report from Australia was released in time for the International Whaling Conference in Portugal. The report argues that whale-watching, as a tourist industry, outstrips the economic value of dead whales sold for food and other products.

While I haven’t looked at the report, it strikes me that this is a pretty obvious result on the valuation, for a variety of reasons. We have with whales the resource-city conflict that comes from years of traditional resource use bumping up against a newly urbanized and rapidly urbanizing global population. The former means a dwindling group of people for whom the direct slaughter of animals is a common practice and necessity, and a growing population for whom resource extraction and use is removed from their daily lives. This leads to governance conflicts in which neither one really recognizes the validity of the others’ claims. The one group decries the destruction of important natural resources, significant for their aesthetic and ecological value. The other group denigrates the former’s valuation as so much yuppified playspace creation.

I’ve never found either of these arguments to be particularly compelling as a means for constructing a rule about just practices in resource use. Justice here, like in many governance contexts, depends on a lot of factors. We need to know a lot more about the particular history of the people and the places engaged in the debate. Inuit claims of cultural importance and subsistence use? Those pass a believability test. The clubbing of baby seals to clothe your own kids? While I don’t like it and I don’t want to watch it, yeah, fine, it seems to hold together for somebody living life on an ice sheet. However, if you are clubbing seals to sell to a global fur trade so you can pay for your internet service provider and power boat?

This gets us into the muddy water of authenticity, but I think the debate belongs there. If you are going engage in global trade, then it seems unlikely that you will be able to reject–nor should you be able to reject–the cosmopolitan mores which that engagement suggests. Which means, in turn, the eyes of the world are on, with some level of regulatory judgment in turn.

And this means the Japanese and Norwegians can not equate their claims about culture and whaling with those of indigenous people. These are modernized economies–wealthy economies–where whalers use modern equipment. At some point, their claims that it’s unfair for the US to lobby for access to a small take of whales for its indigenous groups in Alaska have to fall on deaf ears in the global discussion.

Here’s a more articulate discussion from BBC News.